Garden Learning Never Stops

Garden learning never stops.

Sometimes newer gardeners appear to be unfamiliar with the most common of plants.

Perhaps it is because there seems to be so much to learn about gardening.

That problem is not new.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick  (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1881: “A correspondent of one of the London journals declares that some of the best of our annuals, those common in our gardens, and familiar to all gardeners twenty years ago, are now unknown to young gardeners, and that one would be puzzled to pick a lady a bouquet of flowers from positively good gardens, that was not mainly composed of Pelargoniums, Verbenas, and other plants commonly used for bedding.”

He recognized that gardeners needed to keep up with the newest in garden fashion but also not to forget the older plants.

Vick continued, “This is true, and much more true of English gardeners and gardens than of American.” Thus he seemed to put a bit of blame on English gardeners, but praised Americans who were eager to learn about gardening.

His conclusion could have been based on his experience with his seed business. He received hundreds of letters every year from his customers, asking questions about plants and gardening.

Vick was happy to respond to such questions in both his catalogue and magazine.

Today there are dozens of new plants that come on the market every year. Who can keep track of all of them?

One solution might be to continue to learn about gardening through garden visits, garden books, and garden social media like blogs.

Recently I came upon an old fashioned flower, unknown to me for many years.

While in Ireland a couple of weeks ago, I toured the site of the Battle of the Boyne, which took place in 1690 on the River Boyne near the town of Drogheda.

A beautiful Victorian garden is now included in the back of the site’s visitor center.

There I saw one of my favorite flowers, which I learned about only a year or two ago.

A bunch of calendula flowers appeared in this container along the wall near the greenhouse. [below]

Calendula at the Garden at the Battle of Boyne site in Ireland

Calendula in the garden of the Battle of the Boyne site in Ireland














English Garden Design Discouraged Mixed Beds

The English garden design discouraged mixed beds at one time.

Today we often talk about the impact of mass planting which is using many plants of one variety.

The annual conference for the Association for Garden Communicators happened to be in Atlanta this year.

Part of the meeting included visiting local gardens.

In a garden tour there I saw the use of a single variety of plant to create a carpet bed look around a fountain. [below] The clusters of color made of one plant provided a pleasing sight.

Carpet bedding in Atlanta

Carpet bedding in an Atlanta garden

For decades English gardeners looked down on planting more than a single plant of one variety for a bed or border. A mixed variety was then the style.

David Stuart says in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The old method of planting garden flowers was in a mixture, and flowers had been planted that way certainly since the seventeenth century. It was once believed that to have two flowers of the same sort next to one another was a grave error of taste, and it seems likely that such planting ideas had an even more ancient past.”

To include more than one plant of the same variety was not in style.

Stuart continues, “The idea of grouping flowers, so that only one sort was to be seen in each bed, was as much a major departure from the conventions of history as was the passion for informal landscape gardens of the previous century [the eighteenth].”

The head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton, Stuart writes, in 1838  recommended no mixed beds with perennials but rather carpet bedding with annuals which became the major garden fashion in the Victorian period.

The mixed bed however did survive.  Stuart says, “The mixed mode of bedding survived in rather specialized areas of gardening until the end of the nineteenth century.”

Carpet bedding became the popular style during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Thus, fashion in gardening is most important to heed.

The poor lonely plant doesn’t know the difference, but we do.

Today we plant in a mass or we plant in a mixed border. Both styles have their appeal.


















Two Factors Made English Garden Possible

Two factors made English garden possible

Everyone loves the English garden.

Philadelphia nuseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) said that the English taught us how to garden.

However, an editorial in the 1896 issue of the magazine Garden and Forest laid out the two problems in trying to create an English garden in America.

The editorial said, “American are unlike English conditions, and especially so in two important ways, namely, the price of labor and the character of the climate.”

Hired gardeners who worked in the gardens of England were a common feature for centuries.  That was an expense that the owner of the property would undertake to maintain a garden.

For example, in the nineteenth century at Chatsworth the Duke of Devonshire hired Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) as his head gardener, who in turn hired other gardeners to work the acres of woods, fields, and lawn.  Thomas Jefferson considered Chatsworth his favorite English garden.

In nineteenth century America garden help was not cheap.  Plus, not many people wanted to become professional gardeners.

When English gardeners came to America before 1900, there was no long history of hiring professional gardeners so many of them became farmers.

The second issue is the climate. The climate of England is temperate which makes possible a lawn like that of Chatsworth. [below]  The weather is mild throughout the summer months.

In America the soil in various parts of the country is often clay and the temperature is such that the growing conditions may be dry most of the time. In the Northeast the summers turn hot and the winters frigid. That is not the case in England.

The article concluded “Together they make the perfect English garden quite difficult on American soil.”

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth, made possible by the temperate climate and a staff of gardeners.

So though we can certainly admire the English garden, it is not easy to replicate it in America.

Thus, it is no surprise that over the decades American gardening developed its own style and fashion.






















Online Botanical Prints Include Local Artist

Drawings and paintings of plants, especially flowers, often appearing in books and journals, have long been an important part of garden history. 

Recently the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the oldest such Society in America, founded in 1829, made available on line 1000 of its rare botanical images from the MHS library’s Botanical Print Collection. Some of the artwork dates to the year 1620.

Over a period of three months the MHS, located at Elm Bank in Wellesley, Mass., partnered with Digital Commonwealth and the Boston Public Library to digitize the images. 

Executive Director of the MHS Katherine Macdonald says, “People want to access information on line.” Now, what was once available in the MHS library only to experts, is accessible to everyone.

Isaac Spague's Wild Columbine (1882), part of the MHS' Digital Collection

Local artist Isaac Spague’s Wild Columbine (1882), part of the new MHS’ Digital Collection

The collection includes almost 60 illustrations from the nineteenth century artist Isaac Sprague  from Hingham, Mass. He supplied the drawings for the book Lessons in Botany by Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard. Gray, with whom Sprague worked for twenty years, called Sprague “America’s greatest living artist” and “the most accurate of living botanical artists.”

The MHS collection includes Sprague’s black and white drawings from books with Gray, but also over 50 colorful chromolithographs from the book The Wild Flowers of America, published in 1882. The first illustration in the book is Sprague’s’ painting of the native flower called Wild Columbine, Aquilegia japonica, which is also included in the new digital collection from the MHS. [above]

You can access the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s botanical prints online at the Digital Commonwealth repository. The images are available for the purposes of viewing and studying but not for commercial use.

Now anyone from around the world can view this digital print collection of botanical art from the MHS. The collection is no longer confined to the four walls of the oldest horticultural library in the nation. Macdonald says, “People can enjoy these prints from home.”

The Coleus Arrived in America during the mid Nineteenth Century

One of my favorite plants has to be the coleus. I cannot think of my garden without it.

The coleus has been part of the American garden since the Victorian period.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century.”

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

The W. Atlee Burpee catalog of 1893 included this unforgettable chromolithograph based on several coleus plants. Notice the brilliant colors in the catalog’s illustration.  [Below]

Burpee catalog of 1893

The Philadelphia seed company W. Atlee Burpee featured the coleus here in its catalog of 1893.

According to the online coleus nursery Rosy Dawn Gardens,  “Coleus found their way into Europe and later, America, by way of traders and botanists…Plant aficionados seized upon Coleus as the new ‘it’ plant, and a sort of Coleus Fever swept through Victorian gardens, reminiscent of the Tulip Fever of the Netherlands in the 17th century.”

It was probably because the plant was so important to Victorian gardens that the coleus made its way to America from England in the late 1800s.

Today there are dozens of coleus on the market which help maintain its status as an essential ornamental plant for the American summer garden.


Garden Catalogs Reflect the Times

Catalogs sell products, but also the company’s values for that period of time.

Seed and nursery catalogs might offer seeds, bulbs, vines, shrubs, trees, and even house plants.

They also incorporate the company’s ideas about their business at that particular time.

Cultural historian Thomas Schlereth once wrote, “All written literature–folk, or class–is simultaneously a commodity, a physical art object, a cultural window.”  In that group he placed mail-order catalogs of the nineteenth century.  He said the following about them: “Mail-order catalogs, whether analyzed individually, researched sequentially, or studied comparatively, afford scholars many approaches for an interdisciplinary study of the past.”

Ross catalog of 1910

Ross catalog of 1910

In the 1910 garden catalog [left] from Ross Brothers in Worcester, Massachusetts we see the catalog cover with a woman cutting the lawn. The company might have appeared modern – encouraging women to do what they want, even cutting the lawn, at a time when women wanted more freedom in both the home and in civic life.

Whether or not the company sold more lawn mowers because of this cover we don’t know but we can see the company recognized a new role for women in society.

That the freedom for women meant they, rather than men, cut the grass might seem trivial but that difference is how Ross chose to express it on the catalog cover.

Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes, “Printed materials [including the catalog] held a special significance in nineteenth-century United States. Books, periodicals, and printed art represented both progress and the potential for future progress.”

So perhaps Ross simply reflected the changing role of women.

Nineteenth Century American Industrialists Built their Estates, and just like the English, with a Grand Landscape

In nineteenth century England the wealthy could afford a country house.

In America a similar growth in the number of estates built by wealthy industrialists took place in a period late in the century that was referred to as the “Gilded Age.”

Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States: “In England some five hundred country homes were built or remodeled between 1835 and 1889. In the United States the brewing, shipping, railroad, iron, and banking millionaires followed this British tradition of the country gentleman.”

At that time in Milwaukee Captain Fred Pabst, owner of the largest brewery in the world, built his neo-Renaissance style mansion on Milwaukee’s main street called Grand, today renamed Wisconsin. The year was 1892. Pabst, through hard work and persistance, had earned the title of  ‘brewery baron’.

The Fred Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee

The Fred Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee

The Pabst Mansion was only one of over sixty residences on Grand Avenue, housing Milwaukee’s elite.

Not far away the banker Alexander Mitchell  had built his home in that grand style as well. His landscape included a lawn, trees, and shrubs, all enclosed in a wrought iron fence. A large conservatory stood to one side of the house as well.  Mitchell loved gardening.

Today his home is the Milwaukee Club.

I remember visiting the Pabst mansion  a couple of summers ago. It still stands as a sign of that period when the rich could afford elaborate homes and a landscape to complement it.

The landscape, of course, included a lawn, the ultimate symbol of status and respectability.

The Lawn in 19th Century America Revealed Social Status

The home landscape reveals something about both the homeowner and the culture.

In nineteenth century America the lawn became a way to define the middle class.

The home landscape thus reflected the homeowner’s social status.

Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “Although the elaborate lawn would be attainable only by the wealthy in England, in the United States carefully tended grass became the mark of respectability.”

Jackson Kenneth Crabgrass NationEven before it reached America, the lawn had  become an essential component of the romantic English garden style.

Jackson writes, “The new suburban yard in the United States followed a naturalistic or romantic approach. It was inspired by the English, with antecedents in the Orient, and seemed well suited to the spaciousness of New World suburbs. The style sought to use the existing terrain, with gently curving paths, irregular groupings of trees and shrubs, and rustic pavilions.”

So when the seed and nursery catalogs promoted the importance of the lawn, it was no surprise that the green grass on the home landscape appeared from coast to coast.

Jackson wrote,  “The ideal house came to be veiwed as resting in the middle of a manicured lawn or a picturesque garden.”  It did not matter if the house was in California or Maine.

In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”

Springtime Still Means Lawn Care

The lawn remains the living remnant of the romantic English garden in America.

Though there is much talk today about reducing the size of the lawn or eliminating it altogether, Americans still spend $40 billion a year on lawn care.

The lawn is alive and well.

On Sunday the Boston Globe Magazine included an article called “7 Steps to a beautiful lawn”.

The contents of the article reminded me of what nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote in the March issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1879: “There is nothing in the whole range of American gardening that is the subject of so much solicitude as the proper care of the lawn. ”

The lawn [from Wikipedia]

The Globe article listed the stops needed for a good lawn:

  • test your soil
  • add air
  • get planting
  • feed your lawn
  • mow it right
  • water but not too much
  • control weeds and pests

That amounts to the same information that nineteenth century  garden catalogs, books, and magazines told American gardeners.   Instructions for planting a lawn have not changed much in two hundred years.  Nonetheless, we enjoy reading it every spring.

Perhaps Meehan was right when he said: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us.”

By the end of the Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Had Become Big Business

When you think of a simple seed or a single plant that would be perfect  in  your garden, the image of your ideal garden might also come to mind

That image stems from the experience of gardening or at least a desire to garden.  What could be more simple than a seed or a plant?

The business of selling seeds and plants in a consumer society took on proportions no one expected.

By the late nineteenth century with new printing technology and new methods to deliver products, along with national advertising, the garden industry became big business.  Seeds and plants, often illustrated in color, were sold in catalogs that were printed in the millions and sent from coast to coast.

By  then the business of selling seeds and plants had changed drastically through mass production and distribution.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America”, which appeared in Business History Review (2004), writes: “Between 1850 and 1880, demand for trees and flowers boomed, spurred on by worldwide plant exploration, the introduction of many new ornamental varieties, and a plethora of agricultural and horticultural publications that encouraged hands-on horticulture and delivered practical advice to would-be gardeners and orchardists.”

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

The garden industry evolved from a close-knit community of horticultural professionals who knew one another like Thomas Meehan, James Vick, and Peter Henderson  and who also knew their customers.  Businessmen  around the country sought to sell their garden products to a consumer eager to buy what the company catalog offered.

Seeds and plants in packages big and small  traveled the country on railroad, express delivery, and through the post office.  It almost seemed that everyone could have a package delivered, no matter where you lived.

As the consumer culture grew, so did the selling of products like seeds and plants. Maul’s catalog cover of 1900 [left] illustrated so well that the garden business, as depicted in the two large buildings of the Maule Seed Company in the catalog pages, had evolved not only  to fill the needs of the modern consumer but to announce to the world how big the business had become.